Nicola Frost is Knowledge Guru at the Devon Community Foundation which provides a flexible and personal way for individuals and organisations to invest in local projects, helping to ensure Devon’s communities thrive.
Large and medium-sized organisations often dominate what we hear about the charity sector. But the world looks very different for small and micro-organisations – so different, in fact, that frequently it doesn’t even make sense to talk about them in the same breath. We urgently need a better understanding of their role and contribution in a healthy and diverse society, and how they differ from their bigger cousins.
Serving a rural county with a dispersed population, these small organisations are our core focus at Devon Community Foundation. In 2016, three-quarters of our grants (just over half by value) were made to organisations with an annual income of £50,000 or less. Here are some of the ways we think smaller set-ups – not all, but many of them – can be distinctive, and why they matter.
1. There are a lot of them – but we don’t know much about them
In 2014-15, nearly half of all UK charities had an income of less than £10,000 (known as ‘micro’), and another third were ‘small’ organisations with an income of less than £100,000. However, these organisations account for just 4.5% of the sector’s total income.
And these figures are just those organisations registered as charities. The total number of civil society organisations is far higher — but no one really knows how much higher. For this and other reasons, micro organisations are deeply under-researched.
The phrase ‘below-the-radar’ is misleading, as they are often at the centre of local communities, just not visible to officials and policymakers. For example, we recently funded a small Plymouth-based organisation, About Time, which supports asylum seekers in the city, teaching them English and welcoming them to a community centre where they can make friends and socialise. The relatively tiny economic impact of organisations like this one disguises their huge social significance.
2. They know their place
Small and micro organisations hold vast expertise about what precise issues affect people in their area, what that means in practice, and what strategies will work in a particular situation. They can serve very small or isolated communities overlooked by larger-scale operations, or very specific communities of interest. In either case, they have a sophisticated understanding of the policy and institutional landscapes in which they operate.
The Torbay Ladies’ Lounge, for example, provides a safe, confidential, relaxed environment for vulnerable women who are homeless, sex street workers, victims of domestic violence, suffering from mental health problems/addictions and who are lonely and isolated. Project workers with a detailed knowledge of local conditions help vulnerable women access available services, and plan for a better future.
3. Their funding structures are very different
Public sector commissioners generally favour larger organisations or partnerships, as these are seen as less complicated and more efficient to communicate and contract with. This excludes small and micro-organisations from many funding opportunities, and threatens the local or very specialist expertise embedded within them.
However, on the plus side it can mean that smaller organisations are not influenced as strongly by government priorities, and can be freer to act in accordance with their own values and priorities, and those of the communities in which they work. The recently-established Red Velvet cinema in Plymouth plans regular screenings in a café, aimed at reaching isolated older people and bringing them into contact with neighbours. They recognise their activity is not (or not yet) the kind of thing to attract public funding, but feel this is the right way to address loneliness in their area.
Small and micro organisations tend to rely more heavily on donations from individuals, and on small grants from trusts and foundations. While in many cases contributions from the people involved cover most core costs, some activities will never be financially self-supporting. While more varied forms of financing are welcome, some of the sector has an ongoing need for grant funding, especially grants that cover core funding as well as project expenses. And of course, many tiny, informal groups may well neither need nor want to get involved with external agencies.
4. They are often about connection for connection’s sake
Much of what small and micro organisations do focuses on bringing people together — not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. That’s vitally important.
We’re increasingly aware of the risk social isolation poses to health and wellbeing. But building social capital also means people connecting and interacting within and between groups. DCF manages a social prescribing programme in Exeter which puts community builders on the ground, supporting tiny informal groups to get off the ground, linking individuals to them, and connecting neighbouring activities.
This is a critical part of building thriving, resilient communities that are equipped for future challenges. It might look like just a Brownie pack, or an older people’s lunch club, but there’s a lot more to it.
5. They can bridge the divide between helper and helped
Having fewer paid staff members is not simply a question of finance. Heavily dependent on unpaid local energy and initiative, small and micro organisations often have less of a divide between workers and ‘beneficiaries’, so there is less of a fetish around formal ‘volunteer’ roles and the world isn’t so divided into helper and helped. ‘Volunteers’ can benefit from community action just as much as those they work with.
This chimes closely with Asset-Based Community Development which begins with the recognition that local people should have an active involvement in improving their lives, and that everyone has skills and passions to throw into the mix. Organisations operating with a largely unpaid workforce can help bring together individuals’ energy for mutual benefit. This more holistic approach supports an aim of interdependence (that is, people connected with other people, and sharing skills and support), rather than independence (expecting people to be able to supply all their needs themselves). It also promotes mutuality and equity among community members – a sense of working together on an equal footing for everyone’s benefit.
We need to learn more about this dynamic, and celebrate it more. But we should also recognise that the changing nature of working lives, and the limited time people have to take action locally, is already having a significant impact on micro-organisations, and this is set to continue.
6. Small doesn’t have to mean conservative
Very small organisations frequently have very low fixed costs. With low rates of paid staffing, they can ebb and flow depending on the energy of those involved, the funds available, or the needs of those they work with. So they can be extremely flexible and efficient.
Devon Community Foundation has found some of the smaller recipients of our grant funding are encouragingly dynamic, reflexive, and open to innovation and collaboration. A recent survey we conducted showed 70% of our grantholders had collaborated with others; three-fifths of those were organisations with annual incomes of under £30,000.
As champions of small civil society organisations, we need to ensure we’re supporting innovation at all levels, providing the right information for groups, and finding the best ways of capturing and sharing good practice and learning.